The Kia Seltos is America’s third-fastest selling car. We are clamoring for them, risking our lives to get them. I wanted to know if it was worth it. As it turns out, the 2021 Kia Seltos S 1.6T is not a bad car. Then again, it’s not trying to be a car at all.
Full Disclosure: Kia let us borrow this Kia Seltos to see if the mini-SUV that Americans are clamoring for is any good. It’s not bad, which is kind of a bummer.
Testing Conditions: This vehicle did the New York City Media Shuffle of road tripping out of the city up to the frost heaves of Vermont, to a cabin down a dirt road, across a bumpy field, and up a hike-your-gear hill. From there the Seltos did another few rounds of intra-city commuting duty, including hauling an extremely broken bike to a shop for some frame repair.
To Americans, the Kia Seltos is just another small-but-not-extra-small crossover, this time from Kia. It looks like all the other ones, just with weirder headlights.
But there’s a backstory to this car. The Kia Seltos is Kia’s prestige and breakthrough vehicle... for India! This is the vehicle that only a few years ago launched the Kia marque in the absolutely gigantic Indian auto market, so it’s a sharper machine than you might expect.
Also, the base model’s MSRP starts at $22,000 and it gets all-wheel drive.
This particular Seltos, I fear, is not the super base version, nor is it the top trim. This is the “S Turbo.” It’s one down from the SX Turbo, so it’s still pretty fancy. The sticker on this car was right at $27,085 thanks to the luxurious optional extras of white paint ($345) and floor mats ($130). It comes with the 1.6-liter turbo, which gives good power, sounds better than you’d think, and delivers worse gas mileage than you’d expect. Also the turbo whistles like a turbo should.
The gear-obsessed consumer asks “how much fancy shit can I buy?” The more world-weary buyer asks “how little can I get away with?” When it comes to the design brief of being an SUV, the Seltos pushes the boundaries on the latter side of things. It’s pitched as a mini-SUV. Even the base Seltos comes with AWD standard (FWD is only available on the S trim without the turbo), and you get greeted with buttons like hill descent control and a diff lock. You’re in something rugged, you are meant to think.
Actually sitting in the Seltos and driving it, ruggedness is the last thing on your mind. You’re not in an SUV, you’re in a nice car. There’s nothing particularly chunky about the controls, no hose-down floormats, no nothing. Again, you’re in a somewhat prestige car that happens to be shaped like an SUV.
This is actually pretty clutch! You end up with a vehicle that’s not too big but roomy inside. It’s not hard to see out of, it’s surprisingly comfortable with soft suspension. Look at how it swallowed a weekend’s worth of shit, plus two bikes, packed with all of the care of an impatient teen:
I will now take a moment longer to show how well these bikes fit in this car:
Please also note the Ikea bags serving to keep all of the greasy parts of the bikes off of the felt covering the interior. A Honda Element this is not.
All that makes sense for a car meant to make a good impression to the entire car buying public of India! We complain a lot about how America never gets good cars meant for other countries and, well, here we get one and it’s pretty nice.
Even if you never find yourself doing anything more strenuous than, in my case, driving across a heavily rutted, grassy field, you get appreciable gains in having tons of room to haul your shit in a package that’s not gigantic.
The Seltos’ main win is in its nature: It offers a lot of room in a vehicle that’s not too large. It’s not any longer than a new Toyota Corolla hatchback (both are 14-and-a-third feet long), just taller. That it has AWD standard (on all trims but the 2.0-liter S, for which it is an option) makes you think you will be able to do more Cool Adventure Shit with it. Really, its main advantage at off-roading is probably just the ground clearance, all 7.3 inches of it. I can’t say that I am the most experienced off-roader, but I did find it hard to do very slow-speed maneuvering with the car, as the engine could be a bit jerky coupled with the seven-speed dry dual-clutch transmission.
The engine, I will say, feels powerful and does sound good.
The bummer on the Seltos is that it gets, well, not bad gas mileage but worse than you’d expect. The Subaru Forester with the 2.5-liter is rated at 26 city, 33 highway. Surely the 1.6-liter Seltos would top it? Nah. The Seltos gets 25 city, 30 highway. I saw mostly 27 MPG when I was driving it in the city or in the mountains, and only briefly glimpsed 30 MPG on the dash when I was on flat highways exiting Manhattan. My average was in the 27s.
There is also only one USB port in the dash. This is foolish.
The Seltos gets four stars from NHTSA (it loses a star in front passenger safety and rollover safety). IIHS results aren’t yet online, and it seems that IIHS is still busy crashing—I mean testing—the Seltos.
As for driving it, the Seltos has a few pieces of safety tech. Some are good, some are annoying. The annoying ones are the “driver attention” functions, which beep at you rather regularly. These beeps are accompanied by a little coffee cup icon on the dash recommending you take a break. These icons usually came on when I was very much alert, but when I was actually starting to get drowsy on a pitch-black backroads drive home in the wee hours of the Vermont morning, the Kia gave me no such advice. “I could use a break,” I chided the Kia. “Where are your warnings now?” The Kia did not respond. It did not really care about my safety. It just could detect if I ever strayed out of my lane lines, which is what its “attention” function was actually measuring. Cadillac has a camera that watched your face to see if you’re paying attention. The Kia does not.
There is also a warning that bleats if a car takes off at the lights before you. The Kia wants you to be rested, but aggressive. I appreciate that.
The Seltos also has good cruise control and can steer for you to keep you in your lane. This is a few steps down from Tesla’s Autopilot, and honestly it’s not worth much in my mind. You are meant to keep your hands on the wheel while it is working, which is like a cruise control that requires you to keep your foot on the gas. I didn’t like it, I didn’t like how it steered, and honestly I got scared of the idea of entrusting my life to a car with a $27,000 MSRP. I’m worth more.
The main safety function, most likely, is that the car has actual buttons and knobs for all of the temperature and audio controls, meaning you don’t have to stare at the touchscreen while driving.
I really wanted two things out of my time with a Seltos, two things I did not get.
I wanted to see how good it actually is off-road, but I’m not particularly experienced enough to gauge that. I’d leave that to my colleague David Tracy, who I hope gets some seat time in this.
I also wanted to see just how nice of an experience the base, bottom, entry, $22,000 Seltos is. None were available for me to test.
As it is, if you up your lease payments a hair to go from the base Seltos to this faster, nicer trim, you do end up with a very good car. I can’t say you need any more vehicle in your life than a mid-trim Seltos with the turbo. You deserve an S-Class (a Maybach, really), but you don’t need more than a Seltos S.
The main vehicles that this would go against this thing in terms of space and capability are actually a good size larger than the Seltos. The CR-V, the RAV4, even the Forester are nearly foot longer than the Seltos, without feeling like they are much roomier or more practical vehicles. Go a class down and you find the Honda HR-V or and C-HR, which match the Seltos almost inch-by-inch in dimensions, but are much less spacious inside.
Basically, the Seltos is a Forester but cheaper, or a Fit or Corolla but more comfortable seeking out rough trailheads.
To be honest, there’s little that the Seltos can do that a used Saturn Vue could not. Having taken this thing to New England, I feel it is my duty to provide you with this most painfully practical take. The difference is the Seltos will make you feel a lot nicer than any creaking, plastic GM box still on the road ever could.
The critique of the Seltos, if anything, is that it’s not better in any clear way than any other car you might compare it to. The positive spin on it, you could say, is that it’s just about as good as anything else you’d look at and it costs a few grand less. This is basically the entire Kia business plan in the U.S., so it’s not a major surprise. Just know that the Seltos is going to be a lot nicer than you might expect.